Exposure to benzene during pregnancy: a pilot study raises concerns in British ColumbiaNovember 13, 2017
Peace River Valley, in northeastern British Columbia, has become known in recent years as a place of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas - "fracking," as it's commonly called. What are the health impacts related to living near fracking sites where contaminants, including volatile organic compounds, are released? To try to answer that question, Élyse Caron-Beaudoin, a postdoctoral researcher at the Université de Montréal Public Health Research Institute, studied a group of pregnant women who live in the area. Her results were published this week in Environment International.
High concentrations of muconic acid - a degradation product of benzene (a volatile, toxic and carcinogenic compound) - were detected in the urine of 29 pregnant women who participated in the pilot study. Their median concentration of muconic acid was approximately 3.5 times higher in these women than in the general Canadian population.
In five of the 29 participants, the concentration of muconic acid surpassed the biological exposure index (BEI), a measure developed by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) to protect the health of people in the workplace. Caron-Beraudoin informed the five women of the results and communicated with their attending physicians. Guidelines of acceptable amounts of muconic acid in urine exist only for the workplace; there are none for the general population.
Not beyond a reasonable doubt
"Although the levels of muconic acid found in the participants' urine cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they were exposed to high levels of benzene, these results do clearly demonstrate the importance of exploring human exposure to environmental contaminants in natural-gas (fracking) regions," said Marc-André Verner, the lead researcher on the study. Verner is a professor at Université de Montréal's School of Public Health and specializes in toxicological risk assessment.
"Muconic acid is also a degradation product of sorbic acid, which is often used as a preservative in the food industry," said Caron-Beaudoin. "However, we believe that diet alone is unlikely to explain the concentrations we found in our participants. A more extensive study needs to be conducted with additional measures - to test the air and drinking water, for example - to confirm or refute the results of our pilot study."
Health hazards of benzene include birth defects
The health impacts of benzene are well-documented. "High exposure to benzene during pregnancy is associated with low birth weight, an increased risk of childhood leukemia and a greater incidence of birth defects such as spina bifida," said Caron-Beaudoin. "We were therefore very concerned when we discovered high levels of muconic acid in the urine of pregnant women."
It should be noted that there are multiple routes of exposure to benzene, including inhaling cigarette smoke, filling your car's gas tank, driving, and drinking benzene-contaminated water.
"Many reports have been written on the contamination of air and water by volatile organic compounds near natural-gas well sites," said Verner, who is also a researcher at the Public Health Research Institute. "Northeastern British Columbia is a region that supports the use of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Despite the fact that many chemicals used or emitted by this industry are toxic to humans, no biological monitoring programs have been implemented in the region."
Indigenous people at the root of the study
Why did Quebec researchers lead a study exploring a public-health issue that mainly concerns people in Western Canada? Good question, Caron-Beaudoin replied. "At a conference, Professor Verner and I learned that certain indigenous communities, including the West Moberly First Nations, were concerned about the contaminants released by the many natural-gas sites on their territory, and about how this was affecting people's health. They were looking for researchers to conduct a formal impact study. We expressed our interest, but were very surprised that this kind of study had never been carried out before."
Among the pilot study's 29 participants, 14 were indigenous. Results revealed that the median concentration of muconic acid in the urine of these 14 women was 2.3 times higher than in non-indigenous participants, and six times higher than in women from the general Canadian population. However, it is important to note that the different levels found in indigenous and non-indigenous participants was not statistically significant, possibly due to the small number of women involved. A study with a larger sample size would be necessary to verify if this difference is significant.
'Environmental racism' - a new concept
Nonetheless, these results raise the issue of "environmental racism," a concept that is being increasingly explored by public-health researchers. Environmental racism refers to intentional or unintentional discrimination in the development and implementation of environmental policy, which disproportionately favours the installation of facilities that are potentially harmful to human health in areas populated by cultural minorities and in low-income communities.
For example, a study done in 2016 in Texas (Johnston et al., 2016*) revealed that wells used to dispose of wastewater coming from hydraulic fracturing sites were disproportionately permitted near communities with higher proportions of people of colour. "Environmental injustice is a major concern, particularly in indigenous communities where health inequalities are already an issue," said Verner.
A large-scale study now needed
What's next? Caron-Beaudoin and Verner have applied for funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to conduct a major study of 100 pregnant women, using the same research methodology as in their pilot study. The study will involve doing an analysis not only of benzene biomarkers and other volatile organic compounds, but also of certain heavy metals in urine and hair samples. An environmental analysis of the participants' exposure to contaminants in the air and water will also be conducted. The data will then be modeled by Verner to estimate the fetal concentrations of these compounds, and thus more adequately measure the effects this type of exposure has on fetal development.
A second study led by Caron-Beaudoin will examine the medical data of approximately 6,000 babies born in the region over the past 10 years. "The goal is to assess the overall health of the babies (birth weight, pre-term births, head circumference and the prevalence of certain congenital birth defects) in relation to their proximity to natural-gas well sites and the number of active wells in their environment," the researcher said.
Élyse Caron-Beaudoin, Naomi Valter, Jonathan Chevrier, Pierre Ayotte, Katherine Frohlich and Marc-André Verner, "Gestational exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in Northeastern British Columbia, Canada: A pilot study", Environment International, published online on November 6, 2017. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2017.10.022 This study was funded by the Université de Montréal Public Health Research Institute New Initiative Research Grant and by the West Moberly First Nations.
University of Montreal
Related Public Health Articles:
Canada's Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines, released today with the endorsement of key medical and public health organizations, provide 10 science-based recommendations to enable cannabis users to reduce their health risks.
A new study led by a University of Kansas researcher has used national health statistics and identified how to cluster seven health behavior groups based on smoking status, alcohol use, physical activity, physician visits and flu vaccination are associated with mortality.
It has been 30 years since CDC created the Prevention Research Centers (PRC) Program, currently a network of 26 academic institutions across the US dedicated to moving new discoveries into the communities that need them.
In response to a new federal rule mandating smoke-free policies in federally funded public housing authorities, three public health experts applaud the efforts of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to protect nonsmoking residents from the harmful effects of tobacco exposure.
The UK soft drinks industry levy, due to be introduced in April 2018, is estimated to have significant health benefits, especially among children, according to the first study to estimate its health impact, published in The Lancet Public Health.
The international conference 'Social Sciences & Health Innovations: Making Health Public' is the third event organized as a collaborative endeavor between Maastricht University, the Netherlands, and Tomsk State University, the Russian Federation, with participation from Siberian State Medical University (the Russian Federation).
Dr. Mary T. Bassett, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, was awarded the Frank A.
America's poor record on health literacy is a public health issue, but one that can be fixed -- not by logging onto the internet but by increased interaction with your fellow human beings, a Michigan State University researcher argues.
Although the language of the Affordable Care Act emphasizes disease prevention -- for example, mandating insurance coverage of clinical preventive services such as mammograms -- funding for public health programs to prevent disease have actually been declining in recent years.
Chemsex -- sex under the influence of illegal drugs -- needs to become a public health priority, argue experts in The BMJ this week.
Related Public Health Reading:
The Health Gap: The Challenge of an Unequal World
by Michael Marmot (Author)
In this groundbreaking book, Michael Marmot, president of the World Medical Association, reveals social injustice to be the greatest threat to global health
In Baltimore’s inner-city neighborhood of Upton/Druid Heights, a man’s life expectancy is sixty-three; not far away, in the Greater Roland Park/Poplar neighborhood, life expectancy is eighty-three. The same twenty-year avoidable disparity exists in the Calton and Lenzie neighborhoods of Glasgow, and in other cities around the world.
In Sierra Leone, one in 21 fifteen-year-old women will die in her fertile years... View Details
Introduction to Public Health
by Mary-Jane Schneider (Author)
Introduction to Public Health, Fifth Edition offers a thorough, accessible overview of the expanding field of public health for students new to its concepts and actors. Written in engaging, nontechnical language, this best-selling text explains in clear terms the multi-disciplinary strategies and methods used for measuring, assessing, and promoting public health.
Packed with illustrative real-world examples, this updated edition provides students with informative discussions of the current technical issues and practical obstacles facing public health practitioners and policymakers alike.... View Details
Public Health: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Virginia Berridge (Author)
Public health is a term much used in the media, by health professionals, and by activists. At the national or the local level there are ministries or departments of public health, whilst international agencies such as the World Health Organization promote public health policies, and regional organizations such as the European Union have public health funding and policies. But what do we mean when we speak about "public health?"
In this Very Short Introduction Virginia Berridge explores the areas which fall under the remit of public health, and explains how the individual... View Details
Public Health Nursing: Population-Centered Health Care in the Community, 9e
by Marcia Stanhope RN DSN FAAN (Author), Jeanette Lancaster RN PhD FAAN (Author)
Prepare for a successful career as a community/public health nurse! Public Health Nursing: Population-Centered Health Care in the Community, 9th Edition provides up-to-date information on issues that impact public health nursing, such as infectious diseases, natural and man-made disasters, and health care policies affecting individuals, families, and communities. Real-life scenarios show examples of health promotion and public health interventions. New to this edition is an emphasis on QSEN skills and an explanation of the influence of the Affordable Care Act on public... View Details
Introduction To Public Health
by Mary-Jane Schneider (Author)
Introduction to Public Health, Fourth Edition offers a thorough, accessible overview of the expanding field of public health for students new to its concepts and actors. Written in engaging, nontechnical language, this best-selling text explains in clear terms the multi-disciplinary strategies and methods used for measuring, assessing, and promoting public health. Packed with illustrative real-world examples, this updated edition provides students with informative discussions of the current technical issues and practical obstacles facing public health practitioners and policymakers alike.... View Details
A History of Public Health
by George Rosen (Author), Elizabeth Fee (Introduction), Pascal James Imperato MD MPH&TM (Introduction)
Since publication in 1958, George Rosen’s classic book has been regarded as the essential international history of public health. Describing the development of public health in classical Greece, imperial Rome, England, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere, Rosen illuminates the lives and contributions of the field’s great figures. He considers such community health problems as infectious disease, water supply and sewage disposal, maternal and child health, nutrition, and occupational disease and injury. And he assesses the public health landscape of health education, public health... View Details
Public Health: What It Is and How It Works
by Bernard J. Turnock (Author)
Using a straightforward systems approach, Public Health: What It Is and How It Works explores the inner workings of the complex, modern U.S. public health system--what it is, what it does, how it works, and why it is important.
The book covers the origins and development of the modern public health system; the relationship of public health to the overall health system; how the system is organized at the federal, state, and local levels; its core functions and how well these are currently being addressed; evidence-based practice and an approach to program planning and evaluation for... View Details
Public Health 101: Healthy People―Healthy Populations
by Richard Riegelman (Author), Brenda Kirkwood (Author)
From clean drinking water, to seat belts, to immunizations, the impact of public health on every individual is undeniable. For undergraduates, an understanding of the foundations of public health is an essential step toward becoming an educated citizen.
Public Health 101: Healthy People--Healthy Populations provides a big-picture, population perspective on the determinants of health and disease and the tools available to protect and promote health. It examines the full range of options for intervention including use of the healthcare system, the public health system, and society-wide... View Details
Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health
by Laurie Garrett (Author)
"On par with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring ... This chilling exploration of the decline of public health should be taken seriously by leaders and policymakers around the world."--Publishers Weekly, Starred Review In this meticulously researched and ultimately explosive new book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the New York Times bestseller The Coming Plague, Laurie Garrett takes on perhaps the most crucial global issue of our time. She asks: is our collective health in a state of decline? If so, how dire is this crisis and has the public... View Details
Community/Public Health Nursing: Promoting the Health of Populations, 6e
by Mary A. Nies PhD RN FAAN FAAHB (Author), Melanie McEwen PhD RN (Author)
Covering the nurse’s role in promoting community health, Community/Public Health Nursing, 6th Edition provides a unique ‘upstream’ preventive focus and a strong social justice approach in a concise, easy-to-read text. It shows how you, as a nurse, can take an active role in social action and health policy – especially in caring for diverse and vulnerable population groups. Written by community health nursing experts Mary A. Nies and Melanie McEwen, this book offers clinical examples and photo novellas showing how concepts apply to the real world, and describes the issues and... View Details